Thursday, November 15, 2012

3D Printing Crosses an Inflection Point

A few days ago, a major inflection point occurred in the history of manufacturing and the progress of 3D printing. For the first time, a consumer company has started offering replacement parts for its products as 3D CAD drawings that can be printed on demand at a 3D service bureau or on a 3D printer at home.

Teenage Engineering, a Swedish company that produces electronic music synthesizers, has posted the models on Shapeways. Any customer can download the model for free or order the part to be manufactured on-demand by Shapeways.

The production of replacement parts on-demand with a 3D printer has been predicted by manufacturing experts for years including Scott Crumb, the CEO of Stratasys, one of the primary companies building 3D printing equipment. Now that it is beginning to happen, I expect the trend will accelerate and transform the way companies produce and stock parts.

3D printing creates parts by building them layer by layer based upon a 3D computer model. Each layer is added to the layer below until the part is completed. This additive process is completely different from the way most items are manufactured.  Traditional machining processes start with a block of material and remove material until the part desired is completed. The additive process can be much faster and easier for creating prototypes and small production runs.

The term 3D printing is seldom used by its practitioners.  The process was originally called "stereolithography" which is the name of the first method used to manufacture additively. As other types of technology were introduced, the term "rapid prototyping" became popular because that was the most common use for the machines. Currently, the preferred term is "additive manufacturing" because the method is used increasing for short run manufacturing and producing highly specialized products.

Whatever you choose to call it, the speed and costs of the additive process are continually improving and the technology will be highly disruptive to traditional manufacturing.  Teenage Engineering's new approach to parts support is one of many inflection points we will cross over the next decade.

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